How Netflix Hopes to Build a Franchise with ‘The Gray Man’

The Russos are lining up an expensive espionage franchise over at Netflix, and it will star Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans.
Ryan Gosling Drive Lowangle

Strap in, lock and load, get ready for action. The Danger Zone is an ongoing column that looks at some of the most exciting and interesting developments happening in the action genre. This entry focuses on Netflix’s The Gray Man.

The Russo Brothers are lining up another action franchise. According to Deadline, Joe and Anthony will direct The Gray Man for Netflix. Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans are slated to headline the spy thriller, which is set to cost the streamer a hefty $200 million, making it the most expensive Netflix movie to-date. Ambitious films demand such a price tag, though, and The Gray Man has James Bond-level goals in mind.

The film is based on Mark Greaney’s 2009 novel, which spawned a series about the titular assassin-for-hire. He is a legend in the world of killers, as he has a tendency to disappear into the ether after completing impossible jobs. He used to be a CIA operative, but the agency now wants him dead. And they will stop at nothing to hunt him down.

The Gray Man books feature standard thriller plots, but they’re action-packed and the main character is a badass. Gosling is the perfect actor to bring the role to life, as he’s good at playing characters who are stone-cold deadly and extremely likable. The series sees the hero traveling around the world and taking out scumbags while evading an ever-growing list of enemies. Expect this franchise to be full of globetrotting, which is up the Russos’ street these days.

The novels are pure pulp. The kind of entertaining page-turners that make you can finish out in a single sitting because you want to know what happens. They also offer enough variation and character development to warrant a long-term existence on the page and the screen. Some stories are vigilante tales, while others involve kidnapping plots. The settings vary and new characters are always introduced. Greaney is also a terrific writer who delivers plenty of twists and turns and cinematic action moments. His work will translate well to the big screen, especially with the talent involved.

The Gray Man will sit comfortably in the genre that includes the Bourne, Mission: Impossible, Tom Clancy, and 007 franchises. The books contain elements that are reminiscent of all of those. However, the Gray Man is a protagonist who deserves a seat at the table with those legends, and Gosling is the type of actor who’ll do him justice. His legacy in literature at this point is commendable, and there’s an audience for his stories.

The directors have also given viewers an idea of what to expect when it comes to the film’s style. Anthony Russo told Deadline that The Gray Man will be similar to Captain America: The Winter Soldier with its real-world setting and conspiracy elements. That’s their best movie, so I like what they’re saying. The content of the books, meanwhile, suggests that the carnage will be grittier and bloodier. I imagine it will be similar to Extraction in that regard.

Of course, the movie is further proof that streaming is out to compete with the theatrical experience. That’s been apparent for a while, but the scale of this project will be next-level for Netflix. The directors are out to show that the streamer means business when it comes to blockbusters and that they aren’t messing around when it comes to this potential franchise.

“The intention is for it to be competitive with any theatrical, and the ability to do it with Gosling and Evans is a dream for us. The idea is to create a franchise and build out a whole universe, with Ryan at the center of it. We have all committed to the first movie, and that’s got to be great to get us to the second movie.”

The Russos have always been ambitious filmmakers, and Netflix is of a similar mindset. The streaming service has already shown that it’s as good as any company when it comes to prestige movies. But it’s still chasing an action franchise that will move the needle on the same level as a James Bond or Mission: Impossible. Bright isn’t going to be that franchise. Extraction, while fun, didn’t exactly blow people’s minds either. Will The Gray Man do the trick?

Everyone involved in this project is confident about its chances of success, and there will always be a market for movies of this ilk. Action buffs are sold already, and the convenient nature of streaming means that millions of people will watch it. But to keep justifying this price tag for several movies, The Gray Man needs to wow people with its spectacle.

While the movie will be quite derivative of other action-thrillers to an extent, so is the Mission: Impossible series. But those movies feel like huge events because the action sequences are mind-blowing. Part of their appeal is seeing what crazy stunts Tom Cruise will perform next. They also have longevity on their side, which also helps.

Unlike other franchises of a similar vibe, though, The Gray Man isn’t starting off modestly. It needs to impress from the offset. This is why the movie needs scenes that aim to rival the Halo Jump. The fight scenes also need to be vibrant and pulsating. That’s what will turn this into a must-see franchise. Otherwise, it will just be a standard — and very expensive — espionage flick. My suggestion: hire Iko Uwais as the fight choreographer, and cast Julie Estelle as an assassin.

That said, the story needs to make people want to return as well. It’s clear that they have long-term goals in mind here, and the Russo’s “universe” comment suggests that it’s going to be sprawling and potentially pave the way for spinoffs and offshoots down the line. Planning ahead is what the Russo lads are good at though, as evidenced by their work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The novels will also give them a strong foundation to work with. That’s why I’m confident The Gray Man will be a franchise that people care about.

Kieran Fisher: Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.